Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 3: Pornography by Simon Stephens (2007)
I first came across Simon Stephens’ work (other than Curious Incident) when I was at university. I read some of the plays in his first collection, probably procrastinating from writing an essay at the time. I was struck by the mixture of grittiness and stage poetry in Bluebird, his ability to evocatively capture a time and place in Port that I thought I knew even though I might never have been there, and the concentration on intriguing and richly-drawn characters in his anti-Ayckbourn Christmas play, Christmas. My first visit to the Royal Court was to see his Birdland, a cracking play with a mercurial central performance from Andrew Scott and memorable production by Carrie Cracknell. In particular, being so interested in space, the moment where a character left the play via the fire exit at the back of the stage thus letting daylight flood into the auditorium was awesome.
Recently I’ve finished reading Pornography, about the London 7/7 bombings. It’s a testing play that, when read, makes you reflect on how you read plays and how you imagine them being staged.
The play is made up of seven scenes which can be performed in any order, although they are presented in the text going from scene seven to scene one. I should also say that the text I’m reading is out of a collection of Twenty-First Century British Plays edited by Aleks Sierz. The first six scenes (or last six?) focus on one or two people and their lives on or around 7/7. For example, in one scene we see a woman with a baby who feels ignored by her husband and who is under a lot of pressure from a big task at work. In another, we see an elderly woman possibly with dementia who feels under-appreciated by the university she writes for, and who has to walk home on the hot evening of 7/7. Of course, I don’t do justice to power of these scenes by sweeping over them in a couple of sentence. In fact, they are possibly two of the most quietly powerful and moving and focused scenes I’ve seen or read in a play. Let’s take the scene with the elderly woman for example. Her story is presented as a sort of internal monologue (although that’s not to say that’s how it would be in performance). Through providing careful insight into this woman’s life, Stephens captures a snapshot of the specifics of just one person’s day, which can then be placed against the bigger picture of the brutal events of that day and our memories of it, the enormity of London suddenly being remembered.
If something links the scenes other than the events on 7/7, it is three feelings of togetherness in London that summer. One from the G8 Summit and Live 8 concerts, another from London winning the 2012 Olympics bid on 6th July. Stephens effectively captures that time with characters talking of car horns beeping in celebration and a vivid feeling of humanity connecting. When the elderly woman’s neighbour gives her a piece of BBQ chicken at the end of her scene, the neighbour is bemused. And although he may not say it we get the feeling that he’s doing it with a sense of mutual understanding. The bombings have possibly led to a connection and a small act of kindness between these two strangers.
There are two other scenes which are incredibly testing. One of them is scene four which focuses on one of the bomber’s journey into London. I found the scene so fascinating because it connects you on a very human and recognisable level at times (from references to the Upper Crust café at train stations or the Metro paper for example) to someone who we otherwise don’t connect with or understand. Towards the end of the scene (and I apologise for spoilers in this blog post) there’s the line: ‘Suddenly I feel lighter than I have felt in my whole life’. I read this bit of the play at about 1am also strangely feeling light, with my heart beating fast and my eyes watering as some sort of physical response to the writing. It’s a remarkable bit of writing. Theatre is a collective effort of course, and the sparsity of the stage directions in Pornography suggests that the play when performed has the potential to be a very collaborative piece of work. The full power of the play, then, isn’t got from just reading it but it’s testament to Stephens how the language effectively places you in these peoples’ lives.
Another thing which is fascinating about reading the play is that we don’t know most of the characters’ names or even who is speaking all the time. This really tests you, I found, how to imagine the play. Is it a man or a woman in this scene? Is he speaking this line or is she? Why does the gravelled driveway and front gate mentioned at the start of this scene make me think of a family man who is innocently involved in the 7/7 attacks rather than one of the bombers?
Stephens’ Pornography is a play I’ll revisit again, probably reading the scenes in a different order. It’s also a play which I’d definitely be interested in seeing to see how the director, designers and performers collaborate with Stephens’ script.